Masumi on Preparing for War in “Yakuza Princess”

Masumi was three weeks into an acting class when the opportunity arose to star in “Yakuza Princess,” the kind of role you don’t turn down. The gig may have caught her off-guard, though she had become used to going where life had taken her, the child of an itinerant life that saw her resettle from Palos Verdes, California to Tokyo and back to America in Dallas, with stops in New York and Washington D.C. in between, and her natural charisma as a singer/songwriter not only making her in demand on the road, but by movie producers who saw potential big screen star in their midst. Creative restlessness led Masumi to pursue acting, which makes her her first opportunity to carry a picture ideal when she can never stop moving as Akemi, a young woman whose mundane routine selling tchotchkes in the streets of Sao Paulo is upended by a pair of rivals with ties to the criminal underworld in Shiro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Takeshi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who pursue her with letting on exactly why.

All Akemi knows to do is run, and as it happens — fight, in Vicente Amorim’s thriller in which the heroine’s struggle to carve out an identity for herself has her quite literally kicking and punching her way to the truth under the bright lights of Brazil. Filled with rooftop brawls and karaoke nights interrupted by flying fists, “Yakuza Princess” delivers plenty of action to keep its star busy and its audience entertained and with the film now arriving in theaters and VOD after its recent premiere at Fantasia Fest, we were able to catch up with the multi-hyphenate to talk about preparing for her first leading role, bringing all of her talents to bear on the part and filming such a physically demanding film in a country foreign to her.

From three weeks of acting class to carrying a film on your own, was this an intimidating opportunity?

Absolutely intimidating, right? I didn’t know that at first when I was doing acting, I was just doing it to keep being creative because I was taking a little break from music. I wasn’t thinking too much further than that, so when I got the role, I wasn’t sure I could do it, but at the same time I knew I could do it, so it was this weird strange feeling where I felt it was meant to be. I read the script and the first thing I noticed was that Akemi’s story was very similar to mine. Her upbringing was very similar — she’s a Japanese living in Brazil, and I was born in America, but raised in Japan, so we both struggled with this issue of identity and belonging and I felt like I understood her right away. That was the biggest excitement for me playing her.

Then I’d never done any kind of fighting or stunts before. This was my first time all around, so I did a lot of training for it, but also Akemi is learning how to fight during this movie [because] all of a sudden she has to become this crazy fighter because all these things happen to her, so it feels like Akemi and I both grew together throughout this film.

What was it like going to film in Brazil?

Brazil was amazing. It’s beautiful and people are warm, and the food is amazing. One of the things that I discovered was moqueca, this fish stew, that was amazing. I ate that three or four times because it was so fulfilling after a long day of rehearsals, but I spent most of my time with the team because it was a very busy schedule, but we became like family spending so much time together. And [there are] very vibrant colors, very beautiful, and at first, while I was shooting, it was like, “Oh, a lot of blue lights here” and I didn’t understand it until the final product, but it made it moody and added to this essence of this ghostly, spiritual feeling that’s around “Yakuza Princess”’s story.

What was it like working with Vicente?

We had a great connection working together and Vicente’s amazing because he knows exactly what shots he wants. He’s a great communicator and he was also very open to trying out my ideas, [even] though I was such a newbie. First, there would be a certain direction and then because I’m spending a lot of time with the character, [I might talk out] the emotions she would portray at a certain scene and it didn’t feel like a scary thing like I needed a lot of courage to speak up. He made it very warm and I’m really grateful for that safe environment.

I know that’s true generally, but you’re doing some crazy action scenes in this film. Were they difficult to pull off?

The harder part was I had to keep running and everything was night shoots, so we were running around midnight to five a.m., running, running, running and I didn’t know how many takes we had to do those action scenes, and how much you have to be prepared for that physically, so those were all new things and I did have a little bit of challenge with that, but everybody was really supportive, so I was able to pull through at the end of the day.

There’s a great karaoke scene – featuring one of your own songs, no less – immediately segueing into a fight scene to see your range. Did you actually know you’d be called to perform a song?

I was supposed to sing, but I was not supposed to sing my own song, so that was a blessing to be able to have my own song, but then also it was a challenge to not try to make the song sound so perfect. (Laughs) They realized I had a lot of songs already released, so I showed them all the songs that I had and luckily I had that one song “Run Baby Run” that would be really perfect for the scene in the movie as well, so that’s how it happened. And that’s one of my favorite scenes. I really loved the way that flowed. You’ve got all kinds of things going on.

What was it like seeing this all come together?

We all really worked hard for this, and night shoots for two months is not an easy task, so I saw everybody working really hard and [had] some sleepless nights, so I really felt like we put in our all, so when I saw the final product and how beautiful it was, I was really overwhelmed with this emotional gratitude like we did this together. I’m really excited for everyone to see it.

“Yakuza Princess” opens on September 3rd in select theaters and is available on VOD.